hot garbage

The Church Left on the Curb

A chance trash-day encounter reveals a 170-year institutional history.

Photo: Christopher Bonanos
Photo: Christopher Bonanos

One morning last November, I was walking on East 35th Street, near Park Avenue. It was chilly, and I had my face pulled down into my scarf, casting my eyes toward the pavement. A piece of paper fluttered against my shoe, and the handwriting on it caught my gaze. It looked old, like copperplate script. I bent over to pick it up.

As I did, I saw six or seven boxes of paper at the curb, spilling their contents. One had a plastic drink cup tucked into it, almost surely ditched there a short time earlier by a pedestrian, but the rest of the contents were relatively undisturbed. I saw some sheet music, financial records, other stuff. One box, at the center, was filled with that very old handwritten material. I saw documents bundled in reddish cardboard, tied with ribbon, including one that read SOCIETY OF THE NEW CHURCH, SIGNIFIED BY THE NEW JERUSALEM. / ANNUAL REPORT OF THE BOARD OF TRUSTEES. / 1883. There was a lot more, too. Scrapbooks. Letters.

By my nature, I am a document-digger and an accidental archivist. My apartment—a short walk from this pile—holds a lot of books, back-date magazines, vintage photographs. The bookshelves run floor to ceiling, and they’re full. The last thing I need is another bunch of old paper, I thought to myself. Besides, there could be bedbugs in there, or cockroaches. And I had hurt my shoulder not long before, and I couldn’t lift or carry much.

I peered up the street, toward Lexington Avenue, and saw garbage bags piled in front of each building. It was trash day. All of this would be landfill in a matter of hours. It made it all the way from 1883 to 2021. I shook out my bad shoulder as best I could, sighed, and picked up a box. A few minutes later, having dropped it at home, I came back for two more armloads.

I did conduct some triage, leaving behind the stuff that was not unique: some beat-up books with their bindings wrecked, some photocopies of what looked like hymns. I paused over a few bulky, heavy binders full of financial records ranging from the 1940s forward, and I left those too. Later in the week, I saw that the trash truck had skipped the church that day, and the ledgers were still there, so I made one more haul. My wife knows me well enough to have said (with her own little sigh) “It’s okay.” Our family navigated around the pile in our foyer for a couple of weeks while I figured out what I had.

I had made my discovery in front of the New Church, also known as the Church of the New Jerusalem. I knew a little about it already, having lived in the neighborhood for a long time. It was the spiritual home of New York City’s Swedenborgians, the Protestant followers of an 18th-century Swedish philosopher-mystic named Emanuel Swedenborg. Their beliefs are a little hard to encapsulate in a sentence, but they are not wildly different from those of the Unitarians, with a strong belief in charitable good works and a laudable history of fostering racial equity. (They were early abolitionists.) There are 30-odd Swedenborgian congregations in the U.S., and the church peaked at 7,000 members in 1900. Today there are about a quarter as many. What I had hauled home was 170 years’ worth of the New York church’s records.

The church today. Photo: Christopher Bonanos

The building on East 35th opened in 1859, a few years after its congregation was founded, and it’s the oldest by far on this street. It is old enough, in fact, that it predates its neighbor buildings, and thus doesn’t quite align with the brownstones on the block. Apart from a relocated entrance, it looks much as it did in the nineteenth century. The Swedenborgian congregation, as of 2008, was down to 18 members. As that population had dwindled in the late part of the 20th century, the building had deteriorated, but the church elders managed to fund a major restoration in 2008, and it still seems to be in good shape.

Since the principal community is down to very few people, others have begun to hold services here: a Coptic congregation, some Korean Presbyterians. In 2020, the Swedenborgians gave up the ghost and listed the building for sale. (They dropped the price in late 2021, after which the listing disappeared; it has either just been sold or they’ve had a change of heart.) The prospect of selling the building almost surely occasioned the cleanout that sent these boxes to the curb. (I called the church while writing this story but got no response.)

Photo: Christopher Bonanos
Photo: Christopher Bonanos

The contents were, to my relief, pretty clean. (Not much dust, no bugs.) I left the bundles tied up for the moment, concerned that they might be too brittle to handle, and focused on the loose items that I could unfold easily. There was, near the top of the pile, a document that was older than the building, dating from the year the congregation was founded. “The following is an extract from the minutes of a quarterly meeting …” it read, “held at the house of Mr. Waldo, on the evening of Tuesday, October 5th, 1852.”

Photo: Christopher Bonanos

That’s almost certainly Samuel L. Waldo, a significant figure in the American church. He was a successful artist, and you can see his portrait of his wife, named Deliverance Waldo, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. His house appears to have been on East 9th Street, near Cooper Square.

There was more the deeper I went into the boxes. A report of the church’s Ladies’ Aid Society from 1907. Proof-of-membership documents from the 19th century. A bunch of those annual reports. Some of it was historically trivial but vividly evoked details of everyday life, like a $125 bill for coal to heat the building in the fall of 1904. (Twenty tons, at $6.25 per.) There was also a set of 1930s press scrapbooks mostly relating to another Swedenborgian church in Brooklyn and a box of photographs of that building. The prints were eight-by-ten glossies that had the whiff of an amateur darkroom, and the photographic-paper box they were in bore an early-1960s expiration date. I soon discovered that there had indeed been a Swedenborgian church at the corner of Monroe Place and Clark Street, demolished in the 1960s to make way for the Cadman Towers redevelopment. The easy assumption is that a member of the church photographed it to make a record before it was torn down, and the records were all transferred to its sibling institution.

The paperwork peters out at the beginning of the 21st century, and in its latter days, I spotted a few glancing references referring to the church’s diminishing flock and finances. The newer stuff is made up of photocopies and laser-prints of Microsoft Word documents. They are less compelling to look at, of course: Times New Roman is hardly script written with a steel pen and an inkwell, and it bears no trace of the human hand. But they too are part of the small, significant story of the creation, growth, decline, and near-disappearance of an institution.

Clockwise from top left: meeting minutes from 1880; a vehement letter from the the very early days of typewritten correspondence; documents from the ladies' auxiliary; bylaws. Photos: Christopher Bonanos.
Clockwise from top left: meeting minutes from 1880; a vehement letter from the the very early days of typewritten correspondence; documents from the l... Clockwise from top left: meeting minutes from 1880; a vehement letter from the the very early days of typewritten correspondence; documents from the ladies' auxiliary; bylaws. Photos: Christopher Bonanos.

As it happens, shortly before hauling all of this stuff home I had interviewed (on a different subject) Julie Golia, the chief historian of the New York Public Library. I thought she might have advice about what to do with all this stuff, and we soon got on the phone. I started to fill her in. As I reached the point about the church’s imminent sale, she said, “So did you get inside or something?” I said, “No, everything was at the curb.”

A beat.

“Oh God,” she said. “Did you grab it?”

Yes, I certainly had. “Okay,” she said. “First of all, how much material is it?” A few days later, she came by to size it all up, and she explained that a manageable collection like this was a lot likelier to find an institutional home than a truckload of stuff that would require years to process.

After some backstage conversations, Julie eventually handed me off. The New York Public Library’s intake queue, she explained, was running a little slowly owing to the pandemic, and she was sensitive to the fact the heap of stuff in our foyer was a little bit of a burden. And anyway, she had spoken to Edward O’Reilly, a curator she knew at the New-York Historical Society, which has a lot of church-related records from this period, and he was game to add these to the collections. A week or so later, he pulled up in front of my building in a small SUV, and we gently piled the Swedenborgians into the back.

If there was one page in this cache that stuck with me, it was a list straightforwardly titled “Baptisms, 1887.” Something about all those kids, living in New York City and beyond, seemed strangely immediate — because 1887 is a long time ago, but it’s not that long. It’s a couple of longish lives back-to-back. Take, for a random example, Jessie Reynolds and Eliza Rebecca Hammett, the 11th and 12th names on the list. Someone alive today might well remember them, I thought.

“Baptisms, 1887.” Photo: Christopher Bonanos

Which is how, this week, I found myself on the phone with Jessie’s somewhat surprised son, Benjamin Lacy. He’s a hale 96 years old and lives in Massachusetts, retired from a corporate-law practice in Boston. His mother, he explained, had indeed been born to a Swedenborgian family living in Brooklyn, although they later moved to Sewaren, New Jersey. Jessie worked as a librarian for Louis Comfort Tiffany’s studio—“or if not, for an architectural firm that was very closely allied with the Tiffany studio”—and met her future husband, Frank, when he came east from Iowa to commission a memorial artwork. They married that fall and moved back to Dubuque. Benjamin says that he’s the odd man out who came back East. The family, he added, did not stick with Swedenborgianism; his father was an Episcopalian, and that’s how he was brought up. Towards the end of our conversation, he got curious, and asked, “How did you find me?” And the answer was, after a fashion, It didn’t rain that day.

The Church Left on the Curb